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A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One's (Work's) Own

    I’m moving this month, and one of the things I’m looking for in a new apartment, even though I live alone, is a second bedroom where I can put up an office. My current place is a small 1-bedroom, and while there is a little computer “nook” in one corner of the living room, it’s just not working for me.

    I’d noticed my productivity falling off soon after I moved in, but having just gone through a break-up, I assumed it was just normal post-relationship trauma and that it would bounce back once I got back on my feet.

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    It hasn’t.

    For a long time I told myself I was just unusually busy, but that’s not it – my workload hasn’t increased. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve realized: I felt busier than usual because I wasn’t getting as much done. Where I used to be on schedule, or even ahead, with most of my work, I’ve been rushing to finish things at the last minute, which has kept me perpetually on the cusp of being behind, and occasionally good and fully late.

    One of the biggest factors in all this is not having a clearly defined workspace. My apartment is simply too small – I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve still got a wall of boxes that I haven’t been able to unpack! But the worst part is that I’ve ended up using the same small space to eat, work, and relax in. And that’s simply no good.

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    Here’s the thing: when you live and work in the same place, both living and working suffer. When you’re just trying to relax – say, by watching a movie or reading on the couch – your work-life is still there. And when you’re trying to get some work done, your daily life is all around you – the stack of magazines under the coffee table, the TV, the stereo, the book you’re reading draped over the sofa arm.

    We get conditioned by certain places. Sitting down in an upright chair at a desk primes us to work; sinking into a sofa tells the body that it’s time to relax. When we mix the two – I’ve been working on the sofa a lot with my laptop – the signals get crossed, and the mind  tries to go in two ways at once.

    So, for instance, last month I taught an evening class four nights a week at the community college. I’d get home at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm and pick up my book or switch on the TV. But every night, this little knot of tension would rise up in my chest, this anxious feeling that I was forgetting something, that I was slacking off. In the daytime, when I was actually working, I’d keep getting drowsy, or my mind would wander, or I’d be tempted to check the TV – you know, just to see.

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    This isn’t a quirk of my personality. Well, not just a quirk of my personality. Psychologists have found consistently that environmental cues can trigger certain states of mind in us, making us work harder or move more slowly.

    In a study at Stanford, for instance, a group of subjects was primed with objects related to business and office life (like boardroom tables and briefcases) while a control group was primed with neutral objects (kites, toothbrushes). Tests performed after the priming showed that those whose minds had been directed towards business became more competitive and less cooperative than those whose priming was not business-oriented.

    In practical terms, that means that just seeing the accoutrements of business life can make us more competitive – which is good, since usually when we’re around such objects we’re in the business world where we need to be more competitive.

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    Priming can have all sorts of odd effects. It can make young people move more slowly (after unscrambling sentences containing words like “Florida”, “wrinkled”, and “gray”); it can make people more likely to clean up after themselves (in a room scented with cleaning fluid); it can even make us smarter (students asked to picture themselves as a professor scored higher on a cognitive tests than students asked to picture themselves as a soccer hooligan)!

    So what cues are priming me when I sit down to work in the same space where I relax, or vice versa? My pencil cup and laser printer might be telling me “it’s workin’ time!” while my cozy blanket and TiVo remote suggest “it’s playtime!”.

    It’s clearly important to keep these spaces – and their signals – better-defined. If I were moving in today, I think I would have divided the room up into a clear relaxing area and working area. Instead, I’ll be moving soon, and my first priority is a clear working area, a second bedroom that’s “work only” so I can “go to work” in the morning and have some sense of separation from the rest of my life – and when I’m done, a place I can leave and “come home” from.

    By the way, as a single guy, I often eat dinner on my sofa as well. Which may be why I’m always hungry when I’m working…

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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